Despite some notable examples of positive efforts, the property sector in Australia is falling behind in its efforts to maximise the potential of women in the workforce and especially in senior management roles, according to the latest study.

Based on interviews of executives from 15 of the top ASX listed companies across the real-estate, property and construction sector, research from Ernst & Young and the Property Council of Australia found that whilst women account for almost half of the sector’s workforce generally and slightly over half of all professional staff, more than nine in ten CEO positions and around three quarters of managerial positions within the sector remain occupied by men.

The E&Y report says the industry as a whole suffers from a narrow understanding of business drivers for gender diversity as well as opposing perspectives on the availability of female talent (especially at the managerial level), and has failed to grasp both the weight of external pressures dictating the importance of adopting a gender diverse workforce or the power of leadership in making positive change in this area.

Furthermore, those women working outside of managerial positions within the sector tended to be heavily concentrated into set functions, accounting for more than eight in ten clerical or administrative roles and six in ten community and personal service roles but less than one in ten labourers, technical and trade workers or machinery operators and drivers.

“Based on our findings, we believe the property industry is at a precipitous tipping point,” the report said.

“It can linger in its current status as a male-dominated industry, with a handful of women in executive leadership positions and gender diversity policies or programs, or it can ‘tip’ — opening the flood gates to greater profits and better returns for investors.”

The report tells the story of an industry which is lacking in a coordinated approach over this issue and is largely split among two opposing camps: gender sceptics, who feel there are too few qualified women to choose from for senior roles and that some roles within the sector are not suitable for women due to their demanding nature and who see clients and customers as being predominately male and  are reluctant to hire people from outside the industry, and gender believers, who actively look outside the sector to identify new leaders, support flexibility for both genders and see greater diversity as a tool to foster a more innovative culture.

It says firms should seek positive leadership examples in this area and adopt practices and a culture whereby those with the right skills have opportunities to progress irrespective of whether or not they work full time and those who engage in family or community responsibilities are recognised and respected.

Whilst the report serves largely as a wake-up call, it comes at a time when some companies are being recognised for positive initiatives in this area.

Last month, Stockland GHD, Mirvac, Arup, Transurban were among only 76 companies nationwide to be recognised by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equity Agency as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equity (EOCGE), with Arup being recognised for its efforts in putting its leaders through a training program to raise awareness about unconscious gender bias and Transurban for its work placement and mentoring program which introduces female engineering students to potential career paths and opportunities that field.

Property Council of Australia Chief Executive Officer Ken Morrison said the business importance of gender diversity in the workforce cannot be understated.

“The organisations that provide men and women with the same opportunity to succeed and become leaders will thrive,” Morrison said. “The potential deliverables are tangible and proven.”

“The property industry has proven its credentials when it comes to embedding safety, technology and sustainability across the sector. The same sharp focus now needs to expand to also address gender equity.”